For the Birds? Should Psychologists in Ireland be Political?
Updated: May 22
A conservation study released by Birdwatch Ireland and RSPB NI last month added another voice to increasing alarm calls about the acceleration of ecological collapse on this island. The authors report a 46% increase in birds in Ireland that are now categorised as endangered. This in total, places over a quarter of birds in Ireland in the highest category of concern for extinction. About 40% of endangered bird species are associated with farming practices. This reflects a worsening biodiversity crisis on the island which has serious implications for human and non human life, both on our little patch of the planet, and globally.
We are not separate from nature and we destroy it at our peril. The decimation of plants and animal species has a direct impact on global food security. Also, there is the moral consideration of how the process of extinction is subjectively experienced by sentient beings. This is not just a niche issue of interest to bird watchers; it is yet another distress call from our planet, heralding the escalation of the biodiversity and climate crisis that is engulfing us.
A leading Irish ecologist expressed bewilderment at the almost complete non engagement with this news across Irish media . And certainly, for a country that declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019, this media silence was mirrored by political silence. And now only three weeks on, the study has long since disappeared into the annals of a relentlessly insatiable news cycle.
As a psychologist it is tempting to look to psychological factors to try to understand how many of us can be concerned about ecological collapse and climate change, and yet fail to act.
Psychological understandings of climate change inaction have tended towards a focus on the individual. Schmitt and colleagues (2020) counter this perspective with a critical psychology approach that locates psychological processes within the framework of the wider sociocultural fabric we inhabit. They reject the implication that inaction is due to immutable aspects of human psychology, located solely within the individual and instead highlight the ‘fundamentally contextual and social nature of psychological processes’, and seek to integrate understandings of systemic inequality and injustice into understanding climate inaction. *
I argue this wider lens of understanding climate, holds a compelling overlap with how we can understand mental health issues, i.e., the importance of environment, power, inequality and the limits of theorising ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ at the level of the individual.
In fact, the response of the state’s organisations of power (political systems and national media) to this sign of ecological collapse, rings such a chord with how mental health is conceptualised and discussed in Irish mainstream discourse that I take this response as an invitation to draw out some parallels below. And consider whether we as psychologists need to be paying more attention to these and getting politically active.
Notwithstanding, a quarter of the country’s bird species placed at risk of extinction is an ecological crisis in its own right. This article aims to acknowledge and honour this by outlining some of the ways in which the crisis has been treated since its announcement, and ideally adding to the total words written about it.
I offer parallels between mental health and ecological collapse through the lens of structural inactions. Structural is defined here as pertaining to government and media actions. Three shared structural mechanisms of inaction regarding endangered birds (as representing a warning about ecological collapse) and the treatment of mental health issues in Ireland are proposed below.
Taking radio coverage alone, the Birdwatch Ireland report garnered a total of about 40 minutes of airtime across all radio stations following its publication. To put this in perspective, discussion of the European Super League (a proposed annual football competition to rival UEFA that launched 3 days later) garnered about 5 hours of airtime on one Irish radio station alone for the same period. How can we even begin to conceptualise individual psychological processes if people are not informed about what is happening?
Is mental health similarly ignored?
According to a recent OECD report (2018) Ireland has one of the highest rates of ‘mental illness’ in Europe. Yet mental health services are allocated a mere 5% of the health budget (lower even than an asset stripped NHS which funds at 12% of the overall budget). This translates to either no service provision in many parts of the country and/or lengthy waiting times in others.
In the 2021 budget (a plan for spending in the worst health crisis we have experienced for several generations), mental health was allocated an ‘additional’ 50 million euro in the overall health budget. If this sounds like a lot, compare it with the circa 20 million allocated to subsidise the greyhound industry, or 52 million allocated to Bord Bia for PR, or the 50 million allocated to the running of the Department of the Taoiseach.
For a state (this includes present and past governments) that has consistently opted not to fund or recognise mental health, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been such a long delay between recognising the psychological consequences and interactions in the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. Burke et al, 2020) and moving towards the inclusion of mental health representation in the national response effort. This could be understood as the dominance of the biomedical model in Irish healthcare and in the pandemic response more specifically. That is, a strictly biological understanding of, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic rather than conceptualising it as a highly complex and biopsychosocial public health crisis.
Of the meagre attention the news of the endangered bird species attracted across the Irish media, there was a striking omission of reference to, or discussion of the causes as to why these birds are at risk ( Niall Hatch’s article provides a rare exception here that does not pull its punches.
This Irish times article reports the losses with a complete lack of curiosity or invitation of reader curiosity as to why these bird species are dying out. This article from RTE attributes habitat loss as a cause of the decline of the curlew but opts not to give much more detail as to why their habitats may be in decline or elaborate too much on the report that is cited in the second half.
The decontextualising of people’s material realities is a common critique that is levelled at the biomedical model of illness. The biomedical model has been accused of bypassing the impact of social inequalities such as poverty, precarious unemployment, precarious housing and heading straight to a model of distress that locates illness in the brain of the individual.
Eposito & Perez (2014) elaborate on how the biomedical model functions; ‘mental disorders become viewed as conditions largely divorced from social, economic, and political contingencies and turned into personal pathologies that can be diagnosed and treated through the allegedly value-free traditions and naturalistic methods of science and medicine’.
If we were to apply the dominant discourse of mental health policy making and discussion in Ireland to the demise of the curlew, we might conceptualise this endangerment as curlews experiencing an epidemic of ‘habitat deficit disorder’.
There is considerable evidence that psychological distress is linked to social adversity, including trauma, social isolation, poverty and prejudice (eg. Rahim & Cooke, 2019, Picket & Wilkinson, 2010)
How could we as psychologists look beyond individualist theorising to begin to formulate why Ireland has such a high incidence of mental health difficulties. Perhaps a starting point may be in considering what is normal? Wealth inequality, precarious employment and a housing crisis have unfortunately become the norm here. Economic policies since the 2008 crash have exacerbated wealth inequality in Ireland with a shift in income towards the top 10% of earners with Ireland’s billionaires becoming 3.3 bn richer during the pandemic We know that income inequality affects mental health (Wagner et al, 2017) and is a powerful driver of poor physical and mental health outcomes (Burns, 2017)
Equally, the recent furore around the role of private equity in perpetuating the housing crisis, speaks to a wider culture of inequality and injustice that many citizens of Ireland must continually battle with in order to meet basic human needs. Housing precarity has been shown to have a profound impact on mental health and wellbeing (e.g. Bentley, 2019, Waldron, 2021).
Housing and wealth inequality are just two examples of many material realities that impact on psychological wellbeing yet are not often spoken about in a mental health discussion with politicians or mainstream media. Mental health tends to be compartmentalised as a discrete issue that exists in a social vacuum in Ireland. Much like the demise of the puffin and the curlew was portrayed as a story primarily of interest to bird watchers, mental health is framed as a discrete and individual health problem, destined never to fly the coop of its narrow confines.
3. Locate the solution in the individual
This radio segment is an excellent example of how the solution to a decontextualised problem can easily be located in the individual. In the radio piece, the reasons these bird species are endangered, (e.g. destruction of farmland habitat which is mandated by European CAP initiatives, pollution, climate change, overfishing etc ) are simply not mentioned, and so the question becomes ‘what can you do’, (lock up your cats and avoid cutting your garden hedge**) rather than ‘what can we do?’ How can we challenge national and European policy by mobilising as a collective for example?
It seems clear that to address the escalating biodiversity crisis, we will need to mobilise collective action. We require a similar approach in mental health. Much of the narrative around mental health during the pandemic has centred around what individuals can do. This is arguably the bread and butter of what we as psychologists do, but it is not the whole picture.
The pervasive focus on the individual occupies space that could be used to highlight systemic roots of psychological distress. It silences the role of power and powerful institutions in Ireland and how they have affected both individuals and systems. To opt not to provide basic mental health services and to prioritise corporate interests over citizens’ rights could arguably be considered a form of structural violence perpetrated by the state. That is, violence as enacted by governmental policies of, privatisation, of repurposing housing from homes to investment opportunities, and outsourcing for instance, all of which prevent people from meeting their basic needs. By remaining silent as psychologists, are we colluding in the obfuscation of power in mental health and society?
We need to publicly make links between mental health, inequality and COVID 19 outcomes. There is also a need for more voices to advocate for an adequate level of mental health provision. For increased funding. For example, the provision of national suicide prevention services should not be contingent on the general public’s generosity towards one charity.
We can also do this in our psychological formulations in therapy, in conversations with colleagues, and in the wider community and public stage. The power threat meaning framework may be one framework with which to understand and integrate a wider understanding of context and power into understanding and intervening in psychological distress (Johnstone & Boyle, 2018).
And what of the birds and what their demise says about our current state of ecological collapse? Can we afford to ignore this warning? A third of Irish rivers and a quarter of lakes fail water quality standards in Ireland (EPA, 2019). 85% of habitats and 43% of species (not including birds) have an unfavourable conservation status. We are living through a mass extinction, and as a result we are going to see increasing inequality, societal destruction, and deterioration in global health as a result of climate change. There is an increasing urgency in the need for action. For a just transition. For a radical overhaul of how we understand psychological distress in context and make sense of the global challenges that are heading our way. Lucy Johnstone urges that ‘it has never been more important to speak our minds as psychologists’. She wrote this in 2017. To paraphrase the well-known proverb about planting trees, perhaps the second best time to speak out as psychologists, is now.
*For elaboration on the role of critical psychology in the application to environmental and sustainability issues, see Matthew Adams for example.
** Whilst it is true that cats are prolific killers of millions of birds a year worldwide (we do not have data from Ireland on this), there is not a clear link between their predatory killing to the phenomenon of extinction of birds per se. It does raise an interesting ethical question however about domestic animal practices, highlighting the complexity between the balance of potential cruelty in circumstances where cats are confined to homes 24/7 with the benefit to the bird population of such feline confinement.
Post by Susan Brannick (@drsusanbrannick) / Twitter for Psychologists for Social Change Ireland (PSC). PSC Ireland is a network, not a membership organisation. This blog post does not purport to represent the views of all the members of the PSC Ireland network.
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